Tall Ship Providence

In all her glory.

Reading this week:

  • Night and Morning in Dark Africa by Harry Johnson

My super amazing girlfriend knows me well, and so for my birthday got us a daytrip on the Tall Ship Providence (she pointed out that even if she didn’t know me well our home décor, or my half of it anyways, would be a constant reminder of the fact that I like boats). It was slated for, you know, my birthday, but on my birthday there was severe flooding in Alexandria and they had to cancel for that day. Ignore the fact that a boat seems like the absolute best place to be during a flood. Anyways that was the last sailing day of the season, so flash forward until now, when it is no longer my birthday, and we got to go on our boat ride!

Riding around on the Providence was an absolute hoot. We had been worried about thunderstorms and were thinking our trip was going to get cancelled again, but when our 4:30 departure rolled around it was a perfectly nice day. Sure there were a few sprinkles, and the severe lack of wind made it not much of a sailing trip, but the seas (my super amazing girlfriend: “we’re not at sea”) were calm and the views gorgeous.

I spent most of my trip explaining to (explaining at) my super amazing girlfriend what the various parts of the boat were called. This like the bow and stern and gunwhales. I also referred to the rear deck as the “poop” and the crew referred to it as the “quarterdeck,” but she was nice enough to let that slide unmentioned.

The biggest thing I learned on our boat ride is that while it is obvious that this Providence is supposed to be a recreation of an older boat named the Providence, I hadn’t realized the Providence to which they were referring had at one point been commanded by the late, great John Paul Jones! I know I am supposed to have known that already, but I was in many ways a terrible Midshipman. So that was a hoot. This led me to doing more mansplaining at my super amazing girlfriend, relating my favorite motivational story for why people should learn navigation. That story is that our buddy Jones (just John Paul at the time) was on a ship as like cabin boy or something. In those times usually only the captain and the first mate knew how to navigate. This was an anti-mutiny measure. I will not accept any fact-checking on this story. Anyways unusually John Paul knew how to navigate, which came in handy when the captain and first mate promptly died of yellow fever. He got the ship safely back to port, and the shipowners were so grateful they made him captain and he lived happily ever after (until he had to kill a guy and flee to America and hid his identity by craftily tacking “Jones” onto his name). Know how to navigate!

Upon learning this I sort of hoped we would find ourselves in a similar scenario. Specifically I was thinking that maybe those thunderstorms would hit and then I would have to come to the rescue. To prepare, I spent the rest of the voyage doing my best John Paul Jones poses, as you can clearly see above.

But back to boating. We launched from the DC Wharf and motored slowly down the Potomac. The crew did their jolly best to give us a great sailing experience, letting the passengers even handle some lines. They kept referring to them as “ropes,” but again in my magnanimity I let that slide. Those lines that were handled in turn handled the mainsails and jib which were raised for the benefit of our pictures, mostly. One of the crew explained that the Coast Guard only allowed them to raise certain combinations of sails lest the ship become too overpowered and capsized. I am sure this explains the reef in the mainsail given that I think at one point we experienced something in the range of 3 knots of wind. Breezy! They also opened a bar which definitely did a lot to contribute to the jolly atmosphere of the boat ride, and I recommend all boats come with bars. My super amazing girlfriend was kind enough to buy me a beer and we really got to pretend like it was 1776.

During the course of the cruise they also took us into the captain’s cabin and down below in the hold to check out those spaces. A fake rat added ambiance and we spent our time marveling at how they fit 70 dudes on a 110′ boat. Doing some back of the envelope calculations, if the submariner happiness factor (trust me here) is calculated by # of dudes / amount of space, they were much happier on this boat than I was on the submarine. All in all a wonderful trip. Eventually however we turned around, and sailed back up the Potomac, where we were treated to a beautiful view of wonderful clouds settling in over um, monumental monuments before docking at the conclusion of our three hour tour, accompanied by exactly zero Gilligan jokes (unfortunately). My super amazing girlfriend is super amazing and it was a great boat ride and you all should do it too.

Book Review: Steam and Quinine

Reading this week:

  • Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah

We’re going to venture into all new territory for this blog and do a book review. The book in question is timely and relevant to our discussions here on this blog, which as my myriad loyal readers are aware has lately (though unlikely permanently) become more and more focused on the activities of the London Missionary Society in Central Africa. I promise I have other interests, which have also been documented on this blog, but it is winter and I am a working professional man now and Tim Harford tells me it is good to have serious hobbies so here we are.

One of the things I like about reading into the history of the London Missionary Society and especially the history of their steamer the Good News is that there is not a lot of competition in the space. There are a few other people I have found who have looked into all this which makes it interesting but it’s not like it takes all that much research to rocket to the top echelons of the field. However, the other edge of this sword is that it can make it difficult to access research items. One such item is the subject of today’s book review: Steam and Quinine on Africa’s Great Lakes: The story of the steamers white and gold on Africa’s inland waters by David Reynolds, with illustrations by Keith Watts Thomas.

Given the overall lack of interest in the topic, it is a little stunning that two books were published detailing the lake steamers of Africa in close order, namely The Lake Steamers of East Africa by L.G. Bill Dennis in 1996, and Steam and Quinine in 1997. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that either book got a second edition, and although there are copies of Steam and Quinine on sale for $60ish, I haven’t been able to find a copy of Lake Steamers except over in the Library of Congress. Fortunately for us, however, the Yale University Library is still willing to mail me books, which is how I got my grubby little hands on a copy of Steam and Quinine for us to peruse.

This book is clearly a work of passion for our friend David Reynolds. His biography on the back reveals he “was born to missionary parents near the shores of Lake Victoria in 1932” and completed his education in South Africa. This was his third book about African boats, the first being A Century of South African Steam Tugs (which apparently got three (!) editions) and Kenneth D. Shoesmith and Royal Mail, Royal Mail being a shipping line. This is clearly a man after my own heart, when it comes to steamships at any rate.

Although my specific interest in this book are the boats of Lake Tanganyika, and even more specifically as mentioned the Good News, he covers all the great lakes (Nyasa/Malawi, Tanganyika, Kivu, Albert, Victoria, and the honestly not-so-great Kioga) in a northward fashion. My expertise in this area is targeted, but I haven’t spotted any steamships (or some motor ships) that he missed, making this a very comprehensive review of steam navigation on the African Great Lakes. He does, however, devote more space attention to the boats that pique his personal interest, but honestly what is the point of being passionate about something if you’re not going to devote way too much space to it? *cough* this whole blog *cough*

But let’s circle back to my specific interest, the Good News. Honestly I gotta say this section does not come through shining. I think we’re both partisans here, but I am a much bigger fan (or devotee anyways) of Edward C. Hore than he is. Mr. Reynolds spends a good chunk of time maligning Captain Hore’s character, ending his biography with the note that Hore “died, impoverished and institutionalized, in Tasmania.” According to research published by Dr. G. Rex Meyer (kindly provided to me by the former editor of the unfortunately defunct Church Heritage journal), the only part of that sentence that is true is that he a) died b) in Tasmania, which for me throws much doubt onto his scholarship overall.

Although a feature of the book are paintings of several of the ships by Keith Watts Thomas, the book is also illustrated with sketches by David Reynolds. One of these sketches is of the Good News, included above. I have another nit-pick here. In his sketch, the ship is depicted with a sort of wheelhouse on top of the main cabin. Being as there are a limited number of pictures of the Good News and I have tried hard to see all of them, I think you, the reader, will agree with me that the sketch is derived from the below picture of the Good News in drydock. The ship that Mr. Reynolds has sketched does not match the layout of the real ship at all, which again puts me in fear for his scholarship, on my favorite boat anyways. The below picture isn’t perfect and shows a Good News under repair (for example, it is missing the booms and funnel), but I have also included below an engraving of the Good News under steam from Captain Hore’s book, Tanganyika: Eleven Years in Central Africa, which still doesn’t match the sketch.

Putative source of David Reynold’s sketch
Engraving of the Good News under steam.

I will try to avoid being entirely whiney here but noting that I did learn something intriguing about the eventual fate of the Toutou of Battle of Lake Tanganyika fame. This tidbit is hidden away in the section on the Graf von Goetzen / Liemba:

The Fifi, considered unserviceable, was towed out onto the lake and sunk in deep water on October 19, 1924. She went down with flags flying and all honours. The Toutou did not last long on the lake. She was transferred to Cape Town and could be seen in the Victoria docks with a brightly polished plate in her cockpit which read: ‘This launch served in the East African Campaign as an armed cruiser. Captured and sank three German gunboats with assistance of her sister launch, Mi Mi.’

This means now I gotta get my butt to Cape Town and see if she isn’t still there. Or better yet, anyone in Cape Town already?

Sketch of the Mimi by David Reynolds, along with the source image, below.

All in all if you want to get one book on the steamships that plied the African great lakes, honestly I’m not sure what book to recommend because there are astonishingly two and I haven’t read the other one. Though then again only one of them appears to actually be available. Though then again again the available one is like $60 and I’m not sure I can recommend it at that price. Then again again again they aren’t making more. I don’t know. It was at times a tedious and at times a very entertaining read, and as I said at the top a lot of passion went into it. I guess to conclude, please enjoy this final image I extracted from the book, the masthead of the African Lakes Corporation:

American Victory Ship

As one of the last trips I took as part of our Florida vacation, I went and visited the American Victory Ship in Tampa. You see, what had happened was that my parents recently retired and in a classic move went on down to Florida. Figuring my dad would need some hobbies, I got him a membership to this boat. Victory Ships are apparently like Liberty Ships except I guess just the next class down the line. The SS American Victory is in Tampa and I figured he could help out onboard or something. It’s apparently too far away for him to do that, but since I had gotten him the membership he decided to take me to see it.

The ship itself is pretty good! I mean look, I’ve seen a cargo ship before. I get it. The bunkrooms like, you know, exist or whatever. You can climb on up and get a pretty good look at the harbor, and admire the cranes and whatnot. As these sorts of places are wont to do, the boat had a bit of a museum right when you walked in and that was pretty nice. The neatest part was a full-scale replica of a German mini-sub, which reminded me of a North Korean mini-sub I saw once in South Korea. They also had other, smaller ship models, including one of the USS Saucy, which is a fantastic name for a ship.

One thing I appreciated about the ship is that they have tried hard to think through giving you a good tour. There is a proscribed path that walks you around, and they had a few regularly-spaced air-conditioned rooms to give you a break from the heat. This being COVID times, they also had handwashing stations, which more often than not were just the regular sinks that the ship had anyways, and I found that amusing.

The most exciting part of any given ship is of course the engineroom, but unfortunately you could only really glimpse this one. Since the ship is a working ship in that it goes out every once in a while, I guess the Coast Guard forbids them from letting the riff raff into the engineroom. You could walk across the top though and peer down and get a bit of vertigo from the fear of dropping one’s phone right into the bowels of the bilge. For those interested, however, they do have a video of an engineroom walkthrough, and that’s pretty neat!

After taking a lap around the boat and seeing the sights we had to kill some time, so we hung out for a bit with the volunteer running the booth. He was pretty nice! We all swapped stories the way that disparate Navy veterans typically do, which is tell various stories unrelated to each other (except that they happened on boats) because we don’t really have a solid clue what the other one is talking about (I can’t tell if the guy we hung out with is the same guy from the engineroom walkthrough video, or whether all these veteran volunteer types just start to look alike). Then, you know, we left. So yeah a good time. Anyways, if you’re in Tampa, it might be worth checking the ship out, especially if you’ve never seen one before. Just remember to hydrate! And also please enjoy this picture of a nautical steering wheel lock:

New Bedford

Reading this week:

  • The Mind of the African Strongman by Herman J. Cohen
  • At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop
  • US Policy Toward Africa by Herman J. Cohen

This past week my super amazing girlfriend and I went to New Bedford. We went there because we both wanted to get away for a bit, she likes Massachusetts, and I like boats, and conveniently New Bedford catered to all of these interests. We drove up there on a chilly winter morning, leaving New Haven to pass through Old Saybrook and Old Lyme before waving at New London and New-port until we finally arrived at New Bedford. That last sentence was meant to make fun of all the things in New England named uncreatively for other places, but at one point we were contemplating visiting a 12th-century castle in Taunton, so maybe the naming convention makes sense. Still, if I was a pilgrim everything in New England would be named Patville and Patricktown and Patford.

Upon arrival in New Bedford, we immediately got lunch. Then, having fortified ourselves, we proceeded quickly to Fort Rodman to enjoy the view. There’s a military museum that we wanted to visit, but it was mysteriously closed. Luckily, though, the views were nice, as you can see from the samples above. I enjoyed looking at the lighthouse and also the fort, and the trawlers that were motoring on by. We saw many dogs and a man playing rugby by himself. On the note of views, I can’t believe that anyone thinks that windmills are an eyesore. They are so cool. They spin and stuff and then make electricity. Maybe they could come in more creative paint schemes, like flame decals or something. The same goes with solar panels. I wouldn’t advocate cutting down trees to install ’em, but fields and fields of solar panels is an enticing view to me. Everyone should get on board.

Next, because Fort Rodman hadn’t killed quite enough time and we couldn’t check into our AirBnB until 4, we went on the New Bedford Harbor Walk. That’s not the only reason we went, we also went because we like walking places together and enjoying each other’s company, and the walk provides lovely views of the harbor. I was somewhat disappointed to discover you weren’t supposed to walk out on the very nice path shown in the above photo, but mollified to discover the feat of engineering this wall was. They also have these big ole gates that normally let cars through, but make it possible to just like, cut off the lower peninsula of the city, which I think gave the whole affair some Game of Thrones vibes. It was also very cold while we were walking, and as we set out a lady warned us about the dangers of tearing up and getting frostbite on our cheeks, so that was on our mind. We eventually hustled off the wall and managed to park at our AirBnB shortly before a brief but furious snowstorm hit. We settled in and had a lovely night after getting some seafood takeout.

The next morning we set out bright and early (well, like 9:45) for our full day of New Bedford adventuring. The first stop was the Seaflower sculpture, because of course we support public art. Also, importantly, it let me check off a thing on Atlas Obscura, which is almost as important. This was a fairly good trip for checking things off on Atlas Obscura, as our next stop was an oozing whale skeleton:

I’m on the left.

The whale skeleton was housed at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which was really good! We spent a few hours there looking at stuff. They had the first gallery with the whale skeletons, which was neat (and another one later on), and then an art gallery with a bunch of art, only most of which was whaling-related, and then of course a bunch of galleries that showed you a bunch of stuff about whaling. They had clothing and boats and harpoons and stuff like that. I recommend it. One of their major claims to fame is what they bill as the “World’s Largest Ship Model:”

I guess this counts as a model instead of just like, a ship, because it is half the size of the ship they modelled it after. The overall impression is a ship for children. You can see me on the above right steering it from one end of the hall to the other. We didn’t quite make it, but maybe someday.

Man I uploaded more pictures of the place than I thought. One of the more interesting wings of the exhibit, at least as far as my super amazing girlfriend and I’s interests go, was their wing dedicated to the interactions between the whaling fleets as Asia. They had some super cool examples of Japanese whaling stuff, including a wide range of prints, which I was disappointed to find that the gift shop contained exactly zero reproductions of. They were very neat. The museum also of course boasts of the world’s largest collection of scrimshaw, which I have a particular fondness for out of an effort to make myself presidential. My super amazing girlfriend was very impressed by the swifts.

After leaving the museum and getting some lovely lunch, there wasn’t a whole lot else to actually do in New Bedford. This is largely the fault of COVID. But we spent the rest of a very lovely afternoon walking around and admiring the town, reading the various very informative signs and admiring the boats in the harbor. In the evening we had an expansive takeout dinner and then settled in for the night. That left us with our final morning in New Bedford. It dawned bright and clear and we took advantage of it by being lazy and hanging out until we had to check out of the AirBnB. Then we paid our respects to the Joshua Slocum memorial, which was important because Sailing Alone Around the World is a very good book and he was a cool guy (the memorial park is a lovely spot, too, you should check it out), oh and also for Atlas Obscura. Priorities.

Update: The museum tweeted me. I’ve never achieved this level of fame:

Last Resort

Don’t yell at me Amazon for stealing your photo, I’m trying to drive you traffic.

Reading this week:

  • The Democracy Advantage by Morton H. Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle, and Michael M. Weinstein
  • Civil Wars by David Armitage

In my habit of defending media products that everyone else thinks is bad, and also because it is slow here and I can’t think of anything else to write about (well, I can, but does anyone really want my analysis of why the people getting vapors about Parler getting kicked off of Amazon are dumb?), I want to tell you this week that the TV show Last Resort is the greatest TV show about submarines ever made.

First off, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of competition. I could find two other shows in the general category after some quick Googling. Submarines seem to be made for movies instead. Second off, though, it’s amazing. By which I mean it is absolutely dumb. Exactly zero parts of it make any sense at all. I mean, that photo up top is presented without a hint of irony in the materials for the show. On the cover of the complete series on DVD which of course I bought, in the background there is also a submarine surrounded by explosions and a destroyer also surrounded by explosions and also F-14s coming from behind to do a fly-over. It’s fantastic.

The premise is that a US nuclear missile submarine is attacked by other US Navy ships for mysterious reasons, and the natural response of the captain is to take over a fictional French island in the Indian Ocean that is somehow very well-stocked with lots of supplies but few French people. The submarine tells everyone to stay away lest they start nuking people, which they demonstrate by nuking a patch of ocean off the Eastern seaboard which they claim in the show wouldn’t have any people in it at all, a bit of the story I took personal offense to because I have literally myself been in those very waters they hypothetically nuked. There’s also a drug kingpin on the island. It’s a whole thing. Hijinks ensue.

She is a fully qualified submariner! She would not be naïve! She has seen some shit! Thank you!

Submariners hate the show. At least they think they do. In their defense, everyone else hated the show as well; it was cancelled after 13 episodes. I don’t know when they figured out they were cancelled (I suspect at about the same time they dreamed up this series), but the final few episodes rush towards a conclusion with increasingly bad green-screen acting and the finale is a gigantic explosion. Honestly, not the peak of artform, I’m going to admit that. I have to keep myself from just detailing all the dumb stuff. Like the female lieutenant, who is the star of the show (Daisy Betts as Lieutenant Grace Shepard), who is a longtime friend of the captain and a qualified submariner who also somehow doesn’t know the most obvious things about submarines. Or the fact that somehow the submarine can just pull into and out of port willy-nilly without shore power or reactor startups or tugboats. Or the fact that no one ever seems to do any maintenance on the thing. These are just the things I can remember easily, I haven’t actually watched this show in like 7 years.

Back to my submariners only think they hate it comment. Like I said three paragraphs ago I bought the complete series on DVD and would make sure to bring it underway. Then, I would play it underway in the wardroom. Lemme tell ya what happens. People walk in. They’re like “what is this?” I tell them “It is Last Resort, the greatest submarine TV show ever made.” They would be like “ugh, that show is terrible,” but they would be transfixed. They would watch for about 10 minutes or so, standing up, like they just wandered in for a second, they’re about to leave, really, they just want to see how dumb it is. But after 10 minutes they sit down. Then, when the episode ends and I queue up the next one, they stay for that too. And the next. This can’t go on for too long, there are only 13 episodes, but everyone watches. You know why? Because they love it.

It is a huge mistake to take the show seriously. You have to watch it like a sci-fi show. When you watch Star Trek, it’s loosely based around the concept of a military-type ship, but no yeah Scotty fixes everything pretty much by himself, the bridge crew are naturally the ones that explore dangerous alien planets, and the warp core breaks or fixes at convenient times for the story. We get it. Same with this show. Once you’re in that mindset, it’s absolutely the greatest, which I have said many times now. The show is absolutely bonkers. They blow stuff up all the time. I think there are Russian paratroopers in only like the second episode which the bad-boy SEAL team leader manages to dispatch at the last second after the hot girl tells him he should, saving LT Shepard who was taking on the Russian paratroopers herself. The real star of the show is the COB, who is acerbic and witty and during most of the show trying to overthrow the captain while also keeping junior sailors in line, and is honestly the most accurate part of the whole production. I love him. The show has better people in it than it deserves, like Andre Braugher, who at no point lets on that he is in anything other than an absolute masterpiece.

Our SEAL friend and his hot conscience. You are too good for him Dichen!

Look, a quick review of the Wikipedia page has made me learn that despite being what I can almost certainly state is this show’s #1 fan, even I don’t recall all the crazy stuff they wrote into the script. Episode 6 includes the entire island being dosed with a hallucinogen; maybe the writers were just putting their own lived experience on the small screen. You gotta struggle past the first episode, but watch this show, and you’ll agree with me that it is the greatest submarine show that has ever existed. I’m not going to say it even deserved all the 13 episodes it got, but I think we are all better for them having existed.

COB says watch it!!!

Dove

Reading this week:

  • Truman by David McCullough (in 2020)
  • Superpower Interrupted by Michael Schuman
  • The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

It’s late at night, and I am bereft of ideas of what to write, so I have decided to just make a short mention of what I think is the most significant book I’ve ever read. That book, as you have guessed from the photo at the top, is Dove by Robin Lee Graham.

The came across the book in middle school, when it was assigned to us by our somewhat eccentric geography teacher. I’m not sure what his exact reasoning for assigning it was; I don’t think his reasons had anything to do all that closely with geography. We were supposed to read it over the course of a couple of weeks I suppose, but I devoured it all that night. After I started reading it I just couldn’t stop until I finished it.

The Wikipedia page for Robin gives a short summary of his adventures, so I won’t bother much with that here, except to say that it is the story of Robin sailing around the world solo. When he did that, back in the 60s at age 16, it made him the youngest person to have ever done it.

I am a huge fan of sailing, and being on the ocean and stuff, and while the book is good for that, that’s not what really made it significant for me. What astonished me about the book is that Robin wanted to do something, so he just went out and did it. He wanted to sail around the world, and despite that being something that, by definition at this point, 16-year-olds didn’t do, that didn’t matter, he just made a plan and went about fulfilling it. I’m struggling to come up with a way to say this without being pithy and flippant, but reading the book was the first time that I really figured out that you didn’t need someone’s permission to go out and be who you wanted to be.

There’s a lot of caveats and explaining here. I realize that not everyone can simply do whatever they want to do, and people have responsibilities that make them choose one path or another. I also realize that there are a lot of pursuits that rely on luck and good timing and certainly things like good health. Money really helps too of course. But Robin saw something he wanted to do, and he did it, without someone telling him that he was allowed to do it. The thing he “should” have done is probably finish school, get a job, save up, establish a safety net for himself. But there wasn’t a rule that he needed to do that, nothing that required him to except the societal pressure to conform, and he simply ignored that. I found that amazing.

This isn’t a blog post saying that you should drop out of school; my own experience has demonstrated a lot of value in education. But what I have always found really important is the knowledge that whatever path I have chosen in life, there is nothing that made me do it. I always had other choices; if Robin could just bounce and sail around the world, then so could I. That means that I am in my path by choice, that I want to be here, and that in and of itself makes the path worth pursuing.

I didn’t state that well. It’d take me a lot longer to formulate it eloquently. But Dove still remains important to me all this time later. It’s a good book.

YPs!

IMGP2814

Inspired by spotting that YP last week, I thought I would spend some time writing about them this week. YPs (technically short for “Yard Patrol,” Wikipedia, US Navy) are 110 foot long boats that are more or less designed to be a standard boat. Their purpose in life is for midshipmen to practice driving ships without having to like, go through all the time and expense of driving a destroyer around. Plus they’re smaller, so they fit in the Severn River a lot more nicely. They have two propellers and two diesel engines and a bridge and lookout stands and you can take ’em out and practice driving them around.

Every midshipman has some interaction with YPs. If you ask me, they should put a lot more effort into training midshipmen into surface warfare officers (SWOs), but nobody asks me. But you do things like seamanship classes and the like, and the practice evolutions for these classes are going out on YPs and driving them around. Some midshipmen interact with them even more and go on summer cruises on them for training. And then some midshipmen, some midshipmen are on the YP squadron.

IMGP2883

Some YPs from above.

For my first three years at the Naval Academy, I had less interaction than most with Yard Patrol craft. I was on the sailing team, you see, and we had a particular disdain for YPs. Why motor around on a YP, practicing going in straight lines and then turning on command, when you can sail around on the sleek, clean lines of a sailboat? But then halfway through my 2/C (junior) year, I decided to quit the sailing team when they wouldn’t give me a slot on a donated boat. Everyone at the Naval Academy is required to do a sport, and for that spring semester I was on my company’s intramural basketball team.

Senior year, however, I had come to miss my days on the water with the sailing team, and chose instead for my sport to do… YPs. I joined the YP Squadron, mentioned above. So this is wild. Like I just said, everyone at the Naval Academy is required to do a sport. Everyone. But one of the “sports” you can choose is to join the YP Squadron. What is wild is that it counts as a sport. What the YP squadron does is go out on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and drive YPs. This mostly involves different people standing around in different, discreet spots, and maybe moving their hands or something and then saying things to each other. Absolutely wild that is a sport, but that is the sport I chose so I could get out on the water again.

IMGP2813

Looking into the bridge from the starboard bridgewing.

The Naval Academy, as far as I could tell from my time there, does not have a chess team. It was my opinion that all the people that would have joined the chess team instead joined the YP squadron. You had to be a special kind of nerd to do this. What you practice on the YP squadron is standard commands and docking and undocking boats and then like, navigation. All of which I love, but YP squadron is your sport, so you had to love it more than like, playing dodgeball. Rare breed at the Naval Academy indeed, despite what you’d think. The YP squadron actually gets a fair number of Plebes to sign up every year, because over Plebe Summer the squadron gives them a talk about how amazing and awesome it is and Plebes sign up, not knowing better.

IMGP2876

Down in the galley, with our zoomie on the left.

The squadron itself is in a lot of ways pretty bonkers. If you’re an officer at the Naval Academy, and you just love SWO stuff, you try to help out with the YP squadron. The squadron also attracted the exchange officers. The British guys were always a special kind of crazy because they have a longer naval tradition, and their deck officers are just deck officers; they don’t tend to do engineering stuff too like American officers. So they are fanatical about navigation and try to instill this fanaticism on the YP squadron members. I don’t know if it worked but it was fun to watch. When I was there, the squadron also managed to attract an exchange cadet from the Air Force Academy. I guess he just wanted the full experience. If I didn’t care much about what we did, the zoomie really didn’t. Plus one time we toured a destroyer and he kept calling it a “boat,” much to the annoyance of the officer showing us around, and that was funny.

I actually had a great time on the YP squadron. I was a 1/C (senior) at the time, so no one really like, tried to tell me what to do. And you got to be on the water twice a week, which was fun. And no one got too mad if I just missed it (I actually had a chemistry lab scheduled concurrently, but it usually ended early). I actually did love navigation, and was pretty good at it, so I spent most every afternoon with the YP squadron taking one of the hapless plebes and teaching them navigation, which was relatively undemanding and pretty rewarding. I hope there are navigators out there who might not remember but at least picked up a practical tip or two before their navigation class. Plus it was nice just being out on the water.

Where other sports go to competitions or whatever, the YP squadron went on MOs (Movement Orders). That is, we would just drive the boats somewhere. This was usually pretty neat, because navigating the boats around was fun, and you got some good parking spots. When we went to Norfolk we parked right next to the Wisconsin, and when we went to Baltimore we parked right in front of the aquarium. The squadron also went to the Army-Navy game in Philly, which compared to the bus is a pretty luxurious way to travel. Then we parked next to the Olympia.

IMGP2921

Dad at the helm.

The trip to the Army-Navy game was especially fun because on the way back I got to bring dad. Turns out dear ole’ dad was actually commodore of the YP squadron back when he was a Mid, cementing him as an absolute bonkers NERD. But he had YP experience, and I asked nice, and he got to come with us on the way back down. I told him to not miss our underway time, and he was diligently waiting in the mess decks on the ship before the sun came up and before anyone was even awake. He spent some time at the helm while I was driving (standing officer of the deck), so I was ordering him around and that was fun. He tried to be chill about it all but he had a grand time, even digging up and busting out his old deck jacket from when he was driving destroyers around.

YPRON Cool

Imagine like, a bald eagle screeching too, please.

All in all my time on the squadron was absolutely great. For a professional writing/communications class my senior year, I even made a poster that was meant to promote the YP squadron, depicting some Mid on a lookout post looking patriotic (pictured above). I was hesitant to go to the YP Squadron annual dinner, feeling a bit like an interloper, but due to all the Plebes being underage and the organizers accidentally ordering too much toasting port, we had a great time talking YPs long into the (Tuesday) night. So I stand by my opinion that the YP squadron are all nerds, but for a bit… they were my nerds.

Mystic Seaport Museum

IMG_5258

Last weekend my absolutely amazing girlfriend and I went to the Mystic Seaport Museum, which was awesome. It was her idea; her family used to go to Mystic on vacation when she was a kid and so had some nostalgia for the area, and she also knows I like boats. I have been to Mystic a few times, but never actually made it into the museum, despite the aforementioned deep love of boats. So on a particularly hot Saturday in July we packed up the DeLorean and head up to Mystic to check it out.

It was a great day to go to the seaport. We got there right when it opened at 10, and initially had some confusion about the ticket counter (well, I had some confusion), though after a security guard cleared it up for us we were right in. They were handing out a free book that day with admission, Through Hand and Eye by a guy named Ted Hood, who I had never heard of but is a sailor dude and apparently important (or self-important) enough to get an autobiography published of himself that normally costs $50. And more importantly, they were renting out sailboats FOR FREE!!!!

IMG_Whatever

I was very excited for this because I very rarely get to sail and I do love it so. I guess on a normal day you can pay money to rent one of their sailboats, but given that large chunks of the museum were closed due to coronavirus, they were letting people just take boats out as a bit of compensation I guess. Since it was free, and first come first serve, I was anxious about getting there in time to be able to take a boat out. So I speed walked us right over there and arrived before the boathouse even opened up. I loitered nervously and made sure to get even closer when another couple arrived, though I shouldn’t have worried because they wanted a rowboat.

I was excited to take my girlfriend sailing because she had “maybe once, though I can’t remember for sure” gone sailing before. And I mean I talk endlessly about it. I even wrote an essay for a magazine about sailing mostly to impress her. So I was excited to take her sailing and show her both the literal ropes and the metaphorical ropes, and teach her all sorts of great vocabulary like “port” and “sheet.” To be able to take the sailboat out, you had to pass a rigorous knowledge test, which consisted of the person asking “do you have small boat sailing experience?” to which I cunningly answered “yes,” though I had specifically worn my 2009 Marion-Bermuda race hat to show off my sailing credentials.

So with a shove from the dockhand we were off! We were sailing in the river there and it was a lot of fun. The breeze was light but constant and there was plenty of room and not much traffic and we got to go around for like 40 minutes before I started to feel guilty and pulled us in with a slightly too aggressive docking maneuver (we made it anyways). I had her take the tiller for a bit and she did amazing, absolutely fantastic, because she is both absolutely amazing and absolutely fantastic. It was a great time.

IMG_5287

The YP (Yard Patrol) craft!

Then we were off to see the rest of the museum. One of the more exciting bits was discovering that the Joseph Conrad (pictured up top) was owned by Alan Villiers. I own a number of his books so it was really cool to walk around his boat. That era of ships is also pretty astounding to me, because of how it spans different eras. The Joseph Conrad is a square-rigged sailing ship, but has an iron hull, you know? Villiers was of an era where you could both work on sail-powered cargo ships and then later also see the moon landing.

As we walked over into the shipyard area, I was also absolutely delighted to discover they had a YP! I almost didn’t recognize it at first because I walked up to it at a weird angle, and it was painted a super weird blue instead of it’s usual inspiring grey. I guess this one is owned by the Merchant Marine Academy, and was at the seaport because they’re experienced with working on wooden hulls. But my long and lasting experience with YPs (which I think I’ll detail next week) meant she couldn’t hide from me for long.

IMG_5270

Walking around the rest of the museum was also very nice. It’s not a single building, but actually a small village-looking thing. Although like I mentioned, much of it was closed, there was still plenty to look at. There was a scale model of the river from 1870 or so, and an old US Life-Saving Service hut, and various buildings full of boats. In the above picture, I convinced my super amazing girlfriend to stand next to a triple-expansion steam engine, because I find steam engines very sexy. I am comfortable posting the above picture because she has a mask and that will provide her some deniability of my obsession with steam engines. Actually going through my camera roll I managed to take pictures of a whole host of engines that day:

IMG_5277

So yeah. It was a great day at the Seaport Museum. We saw all sorts of ships and saw all sorts of nautical stuff and even got to go sailing!!! We managed to have lunch at a seafood shack not too far away, and after we were hot and tired from walking around and getting excited about nautical stuff we went to downtown Mystic and had some ice cream. After all that, the only other picture I wanted to post for you guys was the one below of the two little sailboats (one of these we had taken out earlier) because I thought they looked like they were racing. Maybe they were just going about the same direction at about the same time, but it my heart you can’t have two sailboats doing that and not believe they are racing:

IMG_5299

Battle of Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika.1

I’ve mentioned it before (briefly), but the Battle for Lake Tanganyika is probably one of the wildest naval expeditions to have ever happened.  During WWI, the Germans had set themselves up for naval dominance of Lake Tang, causing the British to launch an overland expedition to bring two tiny gun boats to the lake to try to even out the naval odds. It’s one of those tiny little episodes of history that are both nearly forgotten but also have a legend all their own (The African Queen is loosely based on it!). This post isn’t really about the battle, because I could hardly do it justice, there is so much crazy stuff that happened. For a long time I thought there wasn’t much to read about it, but I guess I finally googled it or something and came across Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden. Despite the name, it’s a book for like, adults, and is a colorful if straight history of the whole expedition (for a fictionalized account, A Matter of Time by Alex Capus is good if not entirely accurate).

Digging into the book, I was excited to discover that he had cited an article published in the October 1922 issue of National Geographic, which contained a whole series of photographs by the expedition’s historian, Frank Magee. With the power of the internet, I was able to buy the nearly century-old issue (which contained the “Special Map Supplement” of Africa), and it arrived on my doorstep mere days later.

Lake Tanganyika.2

The point of this blog post was really to show you some of the pictures from the issue. There are like 30 of them. Unfortunately, the nature of my scanner is that I couldn’t really get good scans of the majority of pictures, though fortunately some were placed nearer to the margins and that is what you get to see here. These top two are nice because they actually show some of the ships involved in the battle, with the Mimi, one of the two gunboats, featured in the one up top. There are other, even wilder pics, including one of the gunboats being hauled up a hill by a whole team of oxen. If I can figure out a better way to get the pics scanned in, maybe I can give ’em a post.

Lake Tanganyika.3

The bottom pic is at Lake Bangweulu.

The one point I wanted to make though is that in telling the story of the battle, the people that get lost in the tellings is the thousands and thousands of native Africans that were affected by it. I’ve written about the effect of WWI on the people of Africa before, and the short story is that it doesn’t go well. Fortunately, the Lake Tanganyika expedition doesn’t appear to have resulted in thousands of tenga-tenga dying or anything like that, but certainly the expedition couldn’t have happened without their support, as the pictures above illustrate. Giles Foden’s book actually touches on the lives of the people affected by the battle, and he goes to some lengths to find oral history about the battle from the people still living at the lake.

But when Foden tells his story, he has to rely on the primary sources, such as Magee’s article, and in those sources the story of these people is lacking. I’m not actually that familiar with 1920s era literature on Africa, so I can’t judge Magee against the standards of the time. I would judge him in a lot of ways sympathetic to the people, like when he tells the story of how at one point the expedition relied on “native women from local villages” carrying water in gourds and jars from eight miles away in order to fill the water tanks of the steam-powered tractors they were using the haul the boats. He notes that since water carrying is “domestic work,” the men refused to help, and expresses some disgust.

But way more often than he ponders the gender balance of work, he is concerned about all the cannibals he believes himself to be surrounded by. Graves of German sailors killed in the battle are guarded against natives “addicted” to cannibalism. On noting one particularly decked out chief, he notes “the origin of the spats and pink sunshade puzzled me somewhat until I remembered we were in the land of reputed cannibals.” But most of all the native population just aren’t characters in the story; the only Africa native that is mentioned by name in the whole article is a pet chimpanzee the expedition dubbed Josephine.

Then again who am I to judge? If you go back and read my blog articles from my time in the Peace Corps you won’t find a whole lot of names. A chunk of that is privacy, but a lot of that is just that, like the people on the Lake Tanganyika expedition, the people I met were more or less the background to my own adventures. In the link above (here it is again) where I mention the Battle of Lake Tanganyika, I was myself travelling to the lake to find a ship (the remains of one anyways). The people in that story don’t have names (even the ones that helped me along the way), and in that telling I treated them more has a hindrance to one white guy trying to find the material legacy of other white guys on their turf. I still have some lessons to learn.

Lake Tanganyika.4

This photo is from the Nile river, not Lake Tanganyika, but I like dhows.

CelNav

IMGP0802

This story doesn’t really have a point, but I was asked in a conversation recently if I had ever learned to navigate by the stars, and I didn’t really get to answer, and there is a pandemic going on. The short answer is yes.

Back at the Naval Academy, I was on the sailing team and over the summer we would compete in various races with the team. That year I competed in the Marion-Bermuda Race, which runs in the years that the more famous Newport-Bermuda race doesn’t. The exciting part of this race, unlike its more famous cousin, is that it is a celestial navigation race. You got more points (or more accurately weren’t penalized) if you navigated the entire race using celestial navigation instead of GPS.

So that was pretty exciting! We got to learn how to use a sextant and stuff! I think I was officially the assistant navigator on this little journey, but firmly the celnav guy, and dove right into it. I was already firmly a Bowditch fan, so this was a lot of fun. I learned all about how celestial navigation worked, got pretty familiar with a variety of stars, and would plot sun lines by hand even though we wound up using a computer program to try to plot star shots. Before the Bermuda race we also did the Annapolis-Newport race, and although that was a GPS race we took the opportunity to practice our celnav skills and it was all pretty great! (that photo up top is of me doing navigation stuff on the sailboat)

Then came the actual race itself, which was overcast the whole time. It is pretty hard to do celestial navigation when the sky is covered in clouds. We got exactly one star shot during the trip, and we frankly weren’t sure whether to trust that more or our dead-reckoning position more. The most significant lesson I learned on that trip is you can dead-reckon your way across an ocean. The rule was that you could turn on your GPS within like, 30 miles of Bermuda, so when we thought we were within 30 miles we turned it on, discovered we were really like 50 or something out, turned it back off again, and repeated that process until we were in fact like 30 miles out. We got second in the race! Pretty good!

Anyways, flash forward about five years when I was a submarine officer and held the title of Assistant Operations Officer which, due to reasons, put me in nominal charge of navigation department. My most significant task in that role was approving the maintenance schedule, which is how I discovered that we had an annual maintenance item to check the ship’s sextant. This is how I discovered that we had a ship’s sextant. That was cool! A sextant onboard! Sextants are cool! I have no idea why we had one. I mean, presumably in was in case of emergencies, but I really cannot conceive of the scenario where a submarine would use a sextant. Like first the GPS system would have to go down, and then with all the backup and inertial navigation systems on board, and then the fact we would have to surface to use the sextant, there just isn’t any way we’d use it. I also had trouble figuring out how you would actually go about using it, even if you were on the surface. Not that anyone on board would know how. Except, you know, for me.

Since I knew how to use a sextant, navigation division decided to have a training on celestial navigation, which I would lead. I was looking forward to this, the division was looking forward to this, it was great! Until I was in the wardroom happily putting together my training PowerPoint. I didn’t usually hang out in the wardroom, almost entirely due to reasons like what happened. The squadron ops officer, who used to be our navigator, was on board for an exercise or something. He saw me putting together the Power Point, and asked what I was doing. I explained what I was doing, and then he asked why the hell I was doing that.

There’s actually a lot of use in learning celestial navigation, even if there is no conceivable reason a submarine would ever use a sextant. There’s a lot of really basic navigation concepts that you get to flex in interesting ways. And lemme tell ya I think submarine crews (maybe not navigation division itself but officers for sure) lack knowledge in basic navigation concepts. You have all these systems and computers that put a lot of it out of sight and out of mind, and so people just come to expect a magical box to give them their position and don’t think much about it, but things can go wrong and it is important to both understand what the magical box was doing and the thought behind it so you could actually rely on the magic box. Somethings the magic didn’t work right and when you run a $2 billion submarine aground people don’t really accept the excuse that “well I didn’t really question the magic box.” So there was a lot of use to it! Plus people were excited for it! No one is ever excited about training!

But the SQOPS apparently didn’t approve of celestial navigation training despite my reasoning. But that didn’t matter, he’s not in my chain of command. But then I guess he told the XO, who yelled at the current navigator, who was my boss, and who yelled at me. This was mildly annoying because the navigator APPROVED the training plan! That said I was going to be training on celestial navigation! And now he was yelling at me for trying to carry out the training plan he approved! It’s things like this that made me quit the Navy. But thankfully nav bought my “it’s really training on basic navigation concepts disguised as celestial navigation training” and so I got to do the training and play with a sextant and everyone loved it and it was a great Power Point to boot.